In January 1975, Popular Electronics magazine, with more than half a million subscribers, published an image of a microcomputer on its cover. A small gray-blue metal box with red LEDs and rows of switches served as a housing for the device. In addition, an article was published detailing the new car and an offer to buy a set of components for only $ 396. The success exceeded all expectations. In three weeks, the amount of applications reached $ 250,000.
The man who changed the world
The inventor was the 33-year-old lieutenant of the American Air Force, Henry Edward Roberts, a man with incredible energy and irrepressible curiosity. In 1965, Ed graduated from the University of Oklahoma, received a degree in electrical engineering and was sent to the airbase in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he was engaged in the development of laser weapons. During his service, Roberts, along with colleagues Forrest Mims, Bob Zaller and Stan Caglu, decided to start producing designers for modeling missiles.
Thus was born MITS - Model Instrumentation Telemetry Systems. The first MITS products were light signals for radio models, temperature sensors and audio signal generators. But Roberts soon became interested in microchip technology. He was one of the first to assess the opening prospects and, having bought out the shares of partners, launched the production of digital calculators. In 1971, Roberts' products were very popular, which allowed him to leave the service and expand the company to 100 people.
The first calculating machine was created by the French mathematician Blaise Pascal in 1642. The unit was able to memorize numbers and perform arithmetic operations. The young inventor was only 18 years old.
But a year later, serious competing companies entered the market, whose products were much cheaper. MITS lost the price fight, and by mid-1974 the company's debts reached $ 365 thousand. And then Roberts decided to leave the production of calculators and start releasing a completely new product - a personal computer. This idea engulfed him entirely. As one of the oldest MITS employees, David Bunnell, said: "This is the most radical and passionate person in the world."
A computer accessible to everyone
Throughout 1974, Ed discussed the creation of a computer with his friend Eddie Curry. They talked so much that they were no longer able to pay the telephone bills and began exchanging tapes. In one of these notes, Roberts is very emotional about the need to bring the computer to the masses and create a model so cheap that everyone can buy it. To do this, he decided to use a new technology for manufacturing processors from Intel. The chips produced at that time did not have enough power, but soon a new 8080 chip was created.
In 1941, the German engineer Konrad Zuse created the mechanical computing machine Z3, which has the properties of a modern computer. And in 1946 in the United States, physicist John Mockley developed the first electronic computer, ENIAC.
Roberts immediately began negotiations with Intel and, having interested manufacturers in the scale of the order, managed to achieve delivery at a record low price of $ 75 (the usual price of a chip was $ 360). One MITS engineer designed a hardware bus to support memory and peripherals, and the last hurdle was removed. The niche was free, no one, except Roberts, was going to be engaged in the release of a home computer. Major players such as IBM and even chip company Intel considered the idea to be simply absurd.
The Altair 8800 had no keyboard or display. Data was entered in binary using switches on the front panel. Communication with the user was carried out using blinking lights on the front panel.
Les Solomon, editor of Popular Electronics magazine, was keenly interested in Roberts' new invention, who insisted on sending a prototype to the magazine's New York branch. But even here it was not without an annoying incident. On the way, the cargo was lost. Believing the inventor at his word, the magazine went for forgery - on the cover they depicted a box devoid of filling. However, this did not affect the popularity of the computer, which received the name Altair 8800. Orders poured in in the thousands. Describing this phenomenon, Solomon later said: "The only word that comes to my mind is magic!"
Among those interested in the computer were young Bill Gates and Paul Allen. They proposed to write code that allows users to program the machine themselves.
The small firm did not have the opportunity to meet all incoming requests on time. There was a lack of capacity, personnel, work experience. In 1977, Roberts sold his company to Pertec. For some time he collaborated with the new owners, but soon moved to the state of Georgia, where he received his medical education and took up medical practice. His interest in medicine has been preserved since his youth. Edward was married three times, with his first wife they lived for 26 years. In this marriage, five sons and a daughter were born. Henry Edward Roberts died on April 1, 2010 from pneumonia.